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More money requested for popular $120M home repair program

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(The Center Square) — A year after Pennsylvania’s $120 million Whole Home Repairs program got off the ground, advocates praise the results but say dramatically more is needed.

The program was funded with federal taxpayer funds through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development, almost every county received money to rehab homes with safety or living concerns like roof leaks, foundation problems and other issues.

“Investing in our existing housing supply is a critical tool in an increasingly unaffordable housing market,” Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato said in a press conference on Friday. “Today, we are calling on the governor and the General Assembly to put new funding into this very successful and wildly popular program.”

During a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing, officials offered more details on the work getting done.

Allegheny County received $13 million last year and has 140 homes in the rehab process or are finished, said Dan Sullivan, housing stabilization program manager for Action Housing. He estimated that the money will repair 200 homes, but demand far outstrips capacity.

“We need to be able to take this infrastructure we’ve already created and continue it with ongoing yearly funding to work on homes,” he said. “We’ve received over 4,300 unique eligible applications. We can only work on 200.

Almost three dozen counties received more than $1 million for home repairs, with Philadelphia, Allegheny, Delaware, Bucks and Lancaster counties getting the most: between $3.9 million and $21 million.

The program is as much a jobs program as it is a fight against blight in the commonwealth.

“By meeting the real needs of our neighbors, we’re creating jobs and we’re training the skilled builders to do this work today, tomorrow, and for years to come, aligned with Pennsylvania’s potential,” Sen. Nikil Saval, D-Philadelphia, said.

Kelly Scatena, a Pittsburgh resident whose house was repaired through the program, praised the workers who fixed her roof and restored the property’s failing foundation.

“It felt like my house was dying from cancer,” Scatena said. “I was afraid it was gonna crumble out from underneath of me.”

The department sent out funds in March 2023 to counties, who have until 2026 to use the money. Of 62 counties that have reported updates, 10 counties haven’t yet spent money due to capacity issues of building a program, but all are expected to start sending out funds early in 2024, DCED Deputy Secretary for Community Affairs Rick Vilello told legislators.

About $16 million of the $120 million has been spent so far, he noted, another $18 million in grants have been awarded, and 1,150 properties have received grants.

Statewide, counties have ramped up spending by the end of the year, Vilello said, as officials have established the process and sorted through applications.

“This is really a program that we need to replicate and continue to be able to fund all across this commonwealth,” said Sen. Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh. “We need to make this a priority for Pennsylvania.”

Vacant and blighted properties have been a growing problem across Pennsylvania. With some of the oldest housing stock in the nation, decaying homes shrink the supply of housing while dragging down property values of their neighbors. The issue hits rural and urban areas alike.

Localities have tried to tackle blight by creating a blight fee to go after unresponsive owners. Others have created land banks to sell off or restore vacant properties. Legislators in the General Assembly have proposed fines for blighted properties or tracking bad-faith owners in a registry to keep them out of other towns.

Advocates argue that Whole Home Repairs, if it grows, can stop properties from becoming blighted and vacant, along with a host of other ills.

“These properties, once they go vacant, they will be broken into, they will be vandalized,” Sullivan said. “You’re going to lose taxpayers, you’re going to be decreasing municipal services, educational opportunities, things of that nature. There is a huge trickle-down effect if we cannot fix these homes.”

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